Legalism vs. Lawlessness

The term “legalism” does not appear in the Bible and is therefore difficult to define Biblically. For purposes of this study, however, legalism can be defined as reliance on law keeping to secure salvation and sanctification. The “laws” that the legalist seeks to keep may be either God-given commandments or man-made rules and regulations. According to this definition, a person is not necessarily a legalist merely because he has an overly sensitive conscience with regard to matters such as honesty or frugality. Neither are those who emphasize human responsibility as much as divine sovereignty legalists.1 Nor is a person a legalist because he insists on the need for spiritual disciplines such as fasting and self-denial.

The term “lawlessness” does appear in the Bible, and its meaning is clear from the contexts in which it is found: “What partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial?2 Here we see that lawlessness is the opposite of “righteousness” and is associated with “darkness” and “Belial.” The Greek term “lawless” literally means “without law” (Gk. anomos: a = “without,” nomos = “law”). The term “antinomian,” which does not appear in the Bible, also comes from the Greek word for “law”: anti = “against,” nomos = “law.” True antinomians are not only without law, but also against law.

Opposing Errors

Nothing is sufficient to secure true holiness of life except the regenerating and indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. It is not surprising, then, that false teachers (who are “devoid of the Spirit”3) have always tended toward either legalism or lawlessness in their approach to “Christian” living. Those who are legalistic have substituted law for grace,4 and those who are lawless have “turned the grace of our God into licentiousness.”5 Though we may be inclined to think of legalism as a particularly “Jewish” sin and lawlessness as a particularly “Gentile” sin, in reality both tendencies coexist in every natural man. The sinful heart that is legalistic in its thinking one day may be lawless in its actions the next. In fact, external legalism often coincides with internal lawlessness; the scribes and Pharisees are a primary example.6

No Christian can be a true legalist, since trust in law is mutually exclusive of trust in Christ.7 In the same way, no Christian can be truly lawless, since Christ “never knew” those who “practice lawlessness.”8 Nevertheless, Christians can be adversely affected by both legalism (as the Galatians were) and lawlessness (as the Corinthians were). True Christians can become legalistic in their mindset, concentrating on obedience to a mental “list of duties” rather than their relationship to Christ, and seeking by their daily “performance” to maintain God’s favor and smile. Likewise, true Christians can become lawless in their mindset, using “grace” as an excuse for a lazy and careless spiritual lifestyle, rather than “disciplining themselves for the purpose of godliness.”9 Every professing Christian should give heed to the warning signs of both legalism and lawlessness, since each dishonors God, and the Holy Spirit will never allow either of them to “reign” in the life of a true believer.

Characteristics of Legalism

  1. The legalist centers his life around laws rather than God. The greatest sin of the legalist is that he does not really love and worship God. Instead, his “heart, soul, mind, and strength”—his affections, concerns, thoughts, and energies—are all centered on laws, rules, and regulations. This is particularly odious to God because it gives lost men the impression that true religion is something ugly and impersonal—a matter of lifeless rule keeping, rather than a love relationship with a living God. The fact that such Pharisaic religion is “highly esteemed among men” makes it even more “detestable in the sight of God.”10 True Christian living, by contrast, is something joyful, free, and unconstrained. It glorifies God because it flows from a heart that delights in Him and loves Him supremely.

And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment.” Matthew 22:37-38

The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:17

  1. The legalist is more concerned about rule keeping than the needs of his fellow men. The second greatest sin of the legalist is that he does not really love others. To the legalist, “rules” are more important than people, and “sacrifice” is more important than “compassion.”11 Legalism is insensitive to human need. It is law-centered, not love-centered. It cares more about the fine points of things like Sabbath observance than the sufferings of its fellow men.12 The conscience of a legalist will not be troubled when it sends away a Judas to commit suicide, but it will be very concerned not to transgress some fine point of legal protocol.13

The second [greatest commandment] is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39

And He entered again into a synagogue; and a man was there with a withered hand. And they were watching Him to see if He would heal him on the Sabbath, in order that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man with the withered hand, “Rise and come forward!” And He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And after looking around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored. And the Pharisees went out and immediately began taking counsel with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him. Mark 3:1-6

And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” But when He heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:11-13

At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grain fields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Behold, Your disciples do what is not lawful to do on a Sabbath.” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions; how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone? Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath, and are innocent? But I say to you, that something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire compassion, and not a sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” – Matthew 12:1-8

Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.” – Matthew 27:3-6

  1. Legalism emphasizes externals. The legalist views righteousness primarily in terms of external acts, rather than internal attitudes. He has a shallow view of sin and imagines that by keeping the law outwardly he is pleasing to God. He knows nothing of real heart righteousness. He “judges according to outward appearance,”14 whereas God “looks at the heart.”15

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23:25-28

And when the Pharisee saw it, he was surprised that He had not first ceremonially washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness. You foolish ones, did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But give that which is within as charity, and then all things are clean for you.” Luke 11:38-41

Because of its emphasis on externals, legalism tends to promote outward conformity and uniformity, rather than true unity of spirit. Everyone looks alike, talks alike, dresses alike. Legalism stifles spontaneity, individuality, and freedom.

  1. Legalism majors on minors. Since legalists are blind to the “weighty” matters of the law, they center their attention on fine points and neglect the things that are most important. They “strain out the gnat” by observing minor rules and regulations, but “swallow the camel” by failing to love God and others.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel! Matthew 23:23-24

  1. Legalism develops into a religion of experts. Because the legalist has no living relationship with God as his teacher and guide, he must have a “rule” for every situation that may arise. A whole class of people (“lawyers”) is needed, therefore, to interpret the fine points of the law and to “fill in the blanks” when they feel that God has not given sufficiently detailed revelation.

And one of the lawyers said to Him in reply, “Teacher, when You say this, You insult us too.” But He said, “Woe to you lawyers as well! For you weigh men down with burdens hard to bear, while you yourselves will not even touch the burdens with one of your fingers…. Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter in yourselves, and those who were entering in you hindered.” Luke 11:45-46, 52

  1. Legalism tends to make absolutes out of personal convictions or man-made traditions and then imposes these on others. As noted above, the legalist must have a rule for every situation. When these are not spelled out clearly in Scripture, they must be “deduced” using a mixture of human reasoning and personal opinion. Such human reasoning and personal opinion is soon accepted as “what the Bible teaches,” and a new “absolute” is born! These unbiblical absolutes range literally all the way from the teaching that chrome bumpers on cars are “worldly” and must be painted black, to the idea that all Christians must homeschool their children and bake homemade bread!

And the Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered together around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”Mark 7:1-7

  1. Legalism causes men to sin against others in the name of righteousness. When personal opinions and human traditions are elevated to the position of absolutes, the weighty matters of the law (such as love for God and love for others) are inevitably minimized and invalidated. In order to keep his traditions, the legalist will sin even against his own loved ones, all the while soothing his conscience with the idea that he is “only obeying God.”

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men…. You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death”; but you say, “If a man says to his father or his mother, anything of mine you might have been helped by is Corban (that is to say, given to God),” you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that. – Mark 7:8-13

  1. Legalism is characterized by self-centeredness, pride, judgmentalism, and contempt for others. Self, in one manifestation or another, is prominent in all forms of legalism.

I thank You that I am not like other people…. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get. Luke 18:11-12 NAS95

The legalist has no real comprehension of his own sinfulness or of God’s holiness. He does not really believe that “there is none good but God,”16 so he vainly imagines that he can “establish his own righteousness”17 by keeping the law. He is not cast upon God for mercy, since he has no need of it. He is not cast upon God for righteousness, since he thinks he has his own righteousness. He is not cast upon God for enablement to live a holy life, since he views the law in terms of externals that he can keep in his own power. He is not even cast upon God for guidance, since he has his rulebook and his rules to apply to every situation. The legalist is thus proud, self-righteous, and self-sufficient.

Because he is proud and self-righteous, the legalist views others with contempt. He considers himself to be better than other men.

And He also told this parable to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer. The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer….’” Luke 18:9-11

Furthermore, all legalists are judgmental; they sit above others and look down on them, paying close attention to their supposed faults. Legalists also take it upon themselves to judge the motives of other men’s hearts.

Do not judge lest you be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. And why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:1-5

Let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand. – Romans 14:3-4

In light of these things, it is not surprising that when true Christians move in the direction of legalism, they lose the “sense of blessing”18 that they once had. They realize deep down that they can never “perform” well enough to maintain God’s favor, and they find themselves in a state of misery and bondage. Rather than being filled with love for one another, they begin, instead, to “bite and devour one another.”19

  1. Legalism is of no real value in mortifying sin. Though it has an outward show of righteousness, legalism actually fosters sin, rather than destroying it. Either it stirs men to commit even worse sins than the ones they are trying to put to death, or it replaces outward and obvious sins with “religious” ones that are more hidden and deceitful.

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. – Colossians 2:20-23

Characteristics of Lawlessness

  1. The lawless person centers his life around self and sin, rather than God and others. “Self” is the real god of every lawless person. He cares more about his own will and desires than about pleasing or glorifying the Lord. His inner attitude is, “I do not want this Man [Christ] to reign over me.”20 The lawless person also cares more about his own will and desires than about what is best for his fellow men. Like the legalist, he utterly fails to keep the two great commandments.

These men are those who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves; clouds without water, carried along by winds; autumn trees without fruit, doubly dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up their own shame like foam; wandering stars, for whom the black darkness has been reserved forever. Jude 12-13

  1. Lawlessness turns the grace of God into a license for sin. Lawlessness teaches that because we are saved by grace rather than works, it does not matter how we live. It says that Christians are free to sin because they are not under Law, and it encourages men to neglect or think lightly of Christ’s commandments. Those who are careful to obey Christ are vilified as “legalists.”

For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ – Jude 4

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? – Romans 6:15-16

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” – Matthew 7:21-23

  1. Lawlessness teaches that it is not necessary to be holy in order to be saved. Lawlessness implies or openly advocates the idea that those who are personally unrighteous can inherit the kingdom of God, saying that good works are not the test of true conversion, and sanctification is not a necessary evidence of justification. Repentance is viewed either as not being part of the gospel message or as not involving any actual change of practice with regard to sin. Faith can then be “without works” and yet still be true saving faith.

Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification [holiness] without which no one will see the Lord. Hebrews 12:14

Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes, nor figs from thistles, are they? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit; but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits. Matthew 7:16-20

What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him?…You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? James 2:14, 19-20

  1. Lawlessness views the law of God with contempt. Those who are lawless are not afraid to treat God’s commandments and requirements lightly and with disdain. By their attitudes and actions, they imply that the law itself is evil. Paul, on the other hand, extols the law as “holy, righteous, and good” and rejects as unthinkable any idea that the law is sin.

What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law…. Romans 7:7

So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Therefore did that which is good become a cause of death for me? May it never be! Rather it was sin, in order that it might be shown to be sin by effecting my death through that which is good, that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. Romans 7:12-13

  1. Lawlessness dishonors God. Hypocrisy and lawlessness by those who claim to be Christians causes God’s name to be blasphemed among unbelievers and His truth to be maligned.

Therefore, say to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went. And I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.’” Ezekiel 36:22-23

You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” just as it is written. Romans 2:23-24

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned…. 2 Peter 2:1-2

Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips, nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good, that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be dishonored. Titus 2:3-5

(Taken from The Law of Christ, by Charles Leiter, published by Granted Ministries Press. Used by permission of the author.)

1 Philippians 2:12-13
2 2 Corinthians 6:14-15; see also Matthew 7:23; 13:41; 23:28; 24:12.
3 Jude 19
4 Galatians 5:4
5 Jude 4
6 Matthew 23:28
7 Galatians 5:4
8 Matthew 7:23
9 1 Timothy 4:7
10 Luke 16:14-15
11 Matthew 9:11-13
12 Mark 3:1-6
13 Matthew 27:3-6
14 John 7:22-24
15 1 Samuel 16:7
16 Matthew 19:16-22
17 Romans 10:3
18 Galatians 4:15
19 Galatians 5:15
20 Luke 19:12-14

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